Understanding Climate Risk

Science, policy and decision-making

Archive for November 2010

Understanding Climate Risk – About this blog

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Understanding climate risk is a public outlet for research and development I’ve been carrying out for over a decade. Deciding to blog is something I do with some trepidation – I’ve been communicating science and natural history to the public in talks, print and on radio for nearly 30 years, but the blogosphere is another beast. Understanding is often absent. For example, many commenters on the internet will not entertain an idea unless they’ve had it themselves. Although everyone has the right to say what they think, the solipsism of post-modern democratic culture insists that every utterance is of equal value. Knowledge and expertise is reduced to a series of signposts used to justify or repudiate a given ideology.

Yet climate change is a public risk, so we (I) shouldn’t complain when people do voice opinions. Climate change science mostly tells us what not to do, not what to do. Science tells us what is at risk from greenhouse gas emissions, but with large ranges of uncertainty. If one accepts that the science is sufficiently well understood to justify risk management through adaptation and mitigation (and many don’t), then questions of what to do, by how much, when and who should do it are all underpinned by issues of value. Such questions have strong moral dimensions, therefore should be publicly discussed and debated. The role of science in contributing to how risks are perceived is also an important issue for discussion.

However, climate change is not a simple problem, so will not respond to the sorts of mental models and treatments we apply to simple problems. Too much sun? Put a hat on. Too many greenhouse gas emissions? Stop emitting. Except it’s not as simple as buying or making a hat. For tame risks, it is straightforward to identify what is at risk and propose risk treatments. For complex risks, what is at risk and risk treatment options are in competition with each other. In defining what is at risk (the science-dominated part), risk is used as a noun. In terms of behavioural economics, the heuristic is one of loss (people and species at risk, etc.). The management of those risks is risky in itself. Having accepted the potential for loss, to risk becomes a verb, and the heuristic is one of gain. However, many risk management actions involved with adaptation and mitigation will be inherently uncertain.

One reason why climate change science is attacked is because its conclusions applied to risk assessments, place the interests of some people at risk. Instead of debating what risk management options best reflect those interests, a smaller subset of those people deny the science in order to deny any attendant risk. This role has been conflated with the legitimate activity of scientific scepticism which is a very different activity carried out by researchers representing a wide range of views, whereas organised denial is a form of political lobbying representing quite specific views.

The role of decision-making under uncertainty (2risk) will be the major theme of this blog. How do we take risks to maximise gains and minimise losses when those actions themselves are risky? This question is interdisciplinary, combining the natural sciences, social sciences, behavioural sciences, economics, philosophy, cultural studies, the humanities and the arts. My own self interest is in gaining new insights and sources of information from people who are motivated to comment.

One person who devoted his life to the open, interdisciplinary enquiry of climate change science and risk was the late Stephen Schneider, who died in July this year. Steve helped me greatly early in my work on climate change, offering me lots of encouragement and an editorial in Climatic Change on climate impacts and uncertainty. Many scientists can claim similar generous assistance. His voice is missed. It’s taken me this long, bit I’m adding another voice to the public discussion of science, uncertainty and risk in the form of this blog. I won’t be able to plug the hole his absence has caused but this subject does warrant a wide-ranging interdisciplinary discussion.

Open comments with people’s prior assumptions being clearly outlined are welcome. Humour is welcome because the more serious the matter, the funnier it can (should?) be. Closed comments with concealed assumptions, gratuitous generalisations, racism and sexism, personal attacks, dog-whistling and general trolling are not. I reserve my right to decide when any of these lines have been crossed.

Please be patient while I get the hang of the software.


Written by Roger Jones

November 13, 2010 at 12:40 am

Posted in Climate change, Risk